The field of epistemology has remained in existence for several years. From time to time, philosophers have tried to define truth and knowledge as concepts. How do people acquire knowledge?
Is it an innate phenomenon or is experience the main route by which knowledge is acquired? These have been among the questions frequently asked by scholars interested in epistemology. In real sense, epistemology has three main focal points.
These are practical approach, applied science and the approach based on theology. Given the several approaches, this paper will only focus on rational approach and empiricism. It will compare and contrast the two approaches and give examples of two most celebrated contributors to the vast body of knowledge.
Empiricism is a philosophical approach that argues that the only way an individual can gain knowledge is through experience. According to empiricists, it is utterly impossible for knowledge of the nature of the world to be achieved simply by reflecting and reasoning. Knowledge acquired in this manner can only be one used in analytical truths but not knowledge on how the world operates and the dynamics that form the world’s daily events.
Therefore, the basic argument of the empiricists is that the knowledge of the nature of the world is accumulated with time through daily experiences that an individual goes through. Observation is therefore the main tool upon which knowledge is gained. An individual is bound to make sense of a phenomenon if he or she has had a previous experience or observed the same thing happen to another person.
Through this, he is able to know that ‘B’ is likely to happen if ‘A’ has happened. In other words, he believes that B is caused by A because he has observed this happen before. By observing particular incidents, an individual eventually develops general knowledge. For instance, if an individual throws a stone into the air and the stone falls back to earth, he will have a particular knowledge that if I throw a stone in the air, it will come back.
This is a particular knowledge. However, from this particular knowledge, he will generally understand that if an item is thrown into the air, there is a force that will pull this item back to the earth. This is now a general knowledge that has developed from a particular knowledge. This is the conception of empiricism (Millikan 45).
On the other hand, the rationalists believe that the true source and test of knowledge is based on pure reason and intellect. Rationalists believe that thought alone is the cornerstone upon which our foundation of knowledge is built. Other than deductive reasoning, rationalists also believe that a belief pattern can develop solely from intellectual intuition.
On the extreme sides, some rationalists believe that scientific and historical truths and knowledge could also come through pure reasoning and thought. Unlike empiricism, rationalism argues that the path towards knowledge acquisition is from general and heads towards the particular. For truth to be well established, there need to be some general truths existing within the individual.
This priori truth then acts as the framework upon which the particular truths are established. Before being able to understand a phenomenon, rationalists argue that general knowledge is a prerequisite. This knowledge allows an individual to relate what he has observed with the existing general truths in order to come up with knowledge of that phenomenon (Harms 28).
Despite the disparity in their views, there is a common ground upon which both empiricists and rationalists operate. They both believe in reasoning as an indispensable process in knowledge acquisition. According to rationalists, knowledge is innate and it needs reasoning and intellectual processes to make sense of what is happening.
On the other hand, empiricists believe that knowledge comes from personal experiences. However, without engaging in reasoning, it might be impossible to organize the primitive experiences and make sense of what is actually happening. Therefore, empiricists also believe in reasoning and intellectual process as a tool upon which knowledge is developed.
Among the most celebrated contributors to empiricism is John Locke. According to him, a human mind is not characterized by innate ideas instead; it is endowed by innate ability to decipher understanding from observations and experiences. Clearly, he argues that the human mind can be compared with a clean piece of paper. On this paper, knowledge of symbols and characters eventually start being written on the paper slowly through observation and experiences.
In his own example, Locke compares a human mind to that of a baby. He argues that a baby has no idea about anything. Its mind is blank but endowed with innate abilities to learn from experiences that would eventually form the child’s knowledge base. Therefore, if the child is brought up in a while that has nothing else but black and white; he might never have an idea of what blue and red are (Bradie 34).
Sensation plays another central role in Locke’s perception of knowledge acquisition. The human senses are a prerequisite for the mind to have operational basis which will eventually develop ideas. The mind would therefore be useless and without ability to develop ideas if there were no senses.
Locke clearly puts it that senses are not the ones that construct the mind’s operations. However, through sensation, the mind gets raw materials upon which it can base its operations. Therefore, Locke believes that sensation is an indispensable part of knowledge acquisition (Bradie 35).
In opposition to Locke, Descartes is a rationalist who comes up with an utterly different view point on the acquisition of knowledge. In his perspective, he argues that the human mind has innate but primitive ideas which are packaged within the mind from birth. As a result, an individual is supposed to develop ideas from this innate knowledge by using the process of reasoning and intellectual engagement.
He argues that experiences and observations play no significant role in idea development within the human mind. It is from this point of view that Descartes argues, “…bodies are not, properly speaking, perceived by senses…but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived through their being touched or seen, but only through their being understood” (Godfrey-Smith 23)
In conclusion, both empiricists and rationalists have tried to explain how knowledge is achieved. Although they have ideas that are totally opposites, to some extend, none of the two sides might be totally wrong neither are any of the two sides totally correct. A little thought concerning the two could clearly show that each of them has a morsel of truth.
This is to say, we cannot completely sideline the role of observation and experience in the process of knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, we cannot sideline the role of intellectual reasoning. Through this process, past experiences and observations can be developed to get the clear picture.
Bradie, Michael, “Assessing Evolutionary Epistemology,” Biology & Philosophy, 1(1986): 401-459
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Print.
Harms, William. Information and meaning in evolutionary processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
Millikan, Ruth. Language, Thought, and other Biological Categories. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984. Print.